I’m Yonsei. That means that I’m a 4th generation Japanese American (my great-grandparents were the ones that immigrated to the United States).
Growing up my grandma always talked about internment camps. She would tell us stories of working at the hospital, walking to the shower in the middle of winter, and answering the controversial questionnaire that forced her to answer that she was “disloyal” to the only country she had ever known. She always made sure to bring us to whatever internment camp educational event was going on: museum openings, documentary screenings, and tv special viewings about internment camps were a regular occurrence in my family. I remember my uncle sitting me, my sister, and my cousin down and showing us photos he had taken from inside the camps. He made a pinhole camera using film he had ordered from the Montgomery Ward catalog. My mom always made sure to surround me with books about internment. Tule Lake Revisited was a cornerstone my house.
For me it was just a part of my family’s history and it was a part of my family’s experience in the United States. It was mentioned very casually and very often in my household. My family never shied away from it.
I’ve always been fascinated by this part of my family’s history. When I heard about Tule Lake’s annual pilgrimage, I immediately pushed my family to go.
I was excited about seeing the barracks and seeing the tar-papered covered walls that my grandma described. I would be able to visit the basketball court that my uncle would fill with water so it turned into an ice rink each winter. I might even get to see the barrack that my grandma lived in for all those years.
But when I got there there was nothing.
Well not nothing.There was still Abalone Mountain — the mountain that my uncle could see from within the barbed wire fences and could hike on special occasions when he got special permission to be let outside the fence.
All that stands within Tule Lake is a landmark sign that declares the land as important, the camp prison, and the remnants of one communal toilet.
Nothing else. Not even the graveyard. Someone went through years later, bulldozed it, and then used the dirt (human remains and all) for landfill.
Whenever I talk to people about internment camps, it’s always met with shock and surprise. “What? You know someone who went to camp?”. They’re amazed that I know someone who was imprisoned in them.
My history books in high school had one paragraph about it. That’s it. One. Some people have never even heard of them. Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me.
I didn’t realize how many people didn’t know about the camps, especially since I grew up with it being mentioned so casually and so frequently (a habit I have gladly picked up) that I thought it was normal to talk about it.
I’ve come to this slow realization that that part of my history — the one that changed my grandma’s life so dramatically that she refers to everything as “before camp” and “after camp” — is dying.
My family has kept the story alive for me. I haven’t figured out how, but I intend to keep the story alive for future generations.
The JACL has recently advised that the term “incarceration camp” be used to describe Tule Lake and all the other camps that imprisoned the Japanese. I decided to used “internment camp” because that is the term my family uses most often.This was written for Healing Hawks.